“Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true.” – Robert Browning

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
— Robert Browning “Andrea del Sarto”

It’s Robert Browning’s birthday today.

“Imperial”. Spoken like a true Victorian.

We had to read Robert Browning’s poem “Meeting at Night” in 11th grade, and it was the first Browning I read. This was the era when I started getting into poetry, stuff I discovered on my own, not just the Irish stuff I always heard at home. This was the year I discovered Sylvia Plath, Robinson Jeffers, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and I started “getting it.” I was figuring out how to read a poem, how to focus my attention on it, developing the “poetry reading” skill, which is a skill … This is not always an easy thing to do, especially for a 16-year-old wondering why the Band President doesn’t ask her to the Toga dance.

Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night” transported me. I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know anything about his famous romance, and his even more famous poet wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I met Robert Browning pure, on his own ground. And my response to “Meeting at Night” had to do with the adjectives in the first four lines. They launched me into the stratosphere, the pure pleasure of them. Those adjectives are perfect but also unexpected, if you look closer. The “startled” waves (so great) and “fiery ringlets”, the “yellow half-moon”, the “long black land” … I could see it all. I grew up in the Ocean State and knew all about the moodiness of the sea. Browning’s language fed my soul. It pleased me. Maybe that’s a weird word to use, but it’s true. Pleasure is very underrated.

Meeting at Night

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!


Alongside Tennyson, he was the most popular poet of the Victorian era, although Tennyson really far eclipsed him. But they were the two stars. In my opinion, Browning’s work doesn’t compare to Tennyson’s. And Tennyson has cast a longer shadow, he really did define the era. Browning specialized mostly in monologues (mimicked by A.S. Byatt in Possession), spoken by fictional or historical characters. Browning claimed they were real people, that – in essence – the poems were kind of like dictation. People lampooned him for this at the time. (I don’t blame them.) He was one half of a famous couple. (My post about Elizabeth Barrett Browning here. She’s got some good lines, but I prefer her husband’s poetry – although neither are my favorite.) They were the Brangelina of their day and age.


L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

“I love best the poets who hurt me. When in reading a poem I come across some line that thrusts itself into my heart — then is my soul knit unto the soul of that poet forevermore. Browning hurts me worse than any poet I have ever read — so I love him most.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1875:

He floods acres of paper with brackets and inverted commas.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Browning liked Tennyson’s verse better than Tennyson liked Browning’s.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Emotionally very close to his mother, Browning partly overcame his own Oedipal anxieties in regard to her, but there was a lasting effect upon his life and work. In 1826, when Browning was fourteen, he received a small, pirated edition of Shelley’s lyrics, and this major influence upon his poetry began with some violence. Under Shelley’s initial impact, Browning denied his mother’s religion…His love for his mother was stronger than his esteem for his own integrity, and so he gave up. Something crucial in him never forgot.

G.K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature:

The obscurity, to which he must in large degree plead guilty, was, curiously enough, the result rather of the gay artist in him than the deep thinker. It is patience in the Browning students; in Browning it was only impatience.”

Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 1846:

If it will satisfy you that I should know you, love you, love you – why then indeed … You should have my soul to stand on if it could make you stand higher.

Michael Schmidt:

There are as many versions of him as there are solutions to his murder story. Was he a sublimated anal-erotic, an ordinary entertaining chap, a deep thinker, a charlatan? Such variety illustrates his view that individual imaginations deal individually with a given reality. This individuality and human diversity he explored, so some contend. Or were his dramatic monologues simply a trying on of a succession of insubstantial masks? In either case, Browning declares: ‘Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.’ It is a point of departure: What was that mouth like? What truths does it tell?

Emily Dickinson, reacting to a new Robert Browning poem after his wife’s death:

I noticed that Robert Browning had made another poem, and was astonished–till I remembered that I, myself, in my smaller way, sang off charnel steps.

George Orwell, “As I Please” column, November 24, 1944

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is supposed to have been takin in by the famous medium Home, but Browning himself saw through him at a glance and wrote a scarifying poem about him (Sludge the Medium).

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

We harm Browning by comparing his work to Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s, not because hsi range and depth of characterization are narrow and shallow compared with theirs, but because his poems are neither dramatic nor monologues, but something else. They are not dramatic, but lyrical and subjective, despite their coverings and gestures, and they are not monologues, but antiphons in which many voices speak, including several that belong to Browning himself. Browning, in his uncanny greatness, is a kind of psychologist atomist, like Blake, Balzac, Proust, Kafka, Lawrence, Yeats, and some other modern innovators. In his work, older conceptions of personality disappear, and a more incoherent individual continuity is allowed to express the truths of actual existence.

Matthew Arnold, letter to Arthur Clough:

Browning is a man with a moderate gift passionately desiring movement and fullness, and obtaining but a confused multitudinousness.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 24, 1965:

The great Victorians for me are Tennyson, Browning, Lear, Fitzgerald, Arnold and Hopkins.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, September 16, 1881:

I always think however that your mind towards my verse is like mine towards Browning’s: I greatly admire the touches and the details, but the general effect, the whole, offends me, I think it repulsive.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

…Victorian poetry, as typified by the Brownings, exalts tenderness, fidelity, and devotion, the bonds of married love, preserved beyond the grave.

Michael Schmidt:

He entertains ideas, attitudes, sentiments. It is hard to judge when he’s being serious, when he’s being himself.

George Santayana:

“…inchoate and ill-digested”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

His quest had induced Browning to create a nightmare of history mixed with personal reflections that is repeated by his poetic disciple, Ezra Pound, in the Cantos. Between 1840 and 1842, when Dramatic Lyrics appeared, Browning accomplished a superb metamorphosis of his Shelleyan heritage, and emerged with his characteristic and triumphant form, the dramatic monologue.

Michael Schmidt:

A life that had been a solitary quest, undisturbed by too much attention – indeed, troubled by negative criticism and neglect – became a life of celebrity. His fame rivaled Tennyson’s. Were greatness measured by influence, he would be held the greatest of Victorian poets. His effect on Pound, T.S. Eliot, Auden and many writers of our own day is a matter of record. He perfected the dramatic monologue, the “persona” poem; he insisted on something like a speaking voice in verse of great physical particularity; he lacked a systematic philosophy or worldview. A beguilingly incomplete figure, sufficiently original to instruct and yet not so uniquely original as to intimidate, he epitomizes the derivative Victorian aspirations evident in the architecture, music and painting of the age.

To Robert Browning
by Walter Savage Landor

There is delight in singing, though none hear
Beside the singer; and there is delight
In praising, though the praiser sit alone
And see the praised far off him, far above.
Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world’s,
Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing; the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.

Charles Dickens, after reading the manuscript of Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon”, 1842:

“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.”

Michael Schmidt:

Like Donne, whom he admired, Browning plucks at our sleeve with a startling phrase, plunges us in medias res, ignites our curiosity time and again. He satisfies our curiosity. His syntax can be effectively mimetic, scurrying in breathless clauses to a climax, or pacing with dignity, or deliberating ponderously, as the action, rather than the character, requires.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Browning had swerved away from the remorseless, questing lyrical art of Shelley, where the poet seeks to fulfill desire by associating desire with the Intellectual Beauty that manifests itself just beynd the range of the senses. In Browning’s vision the family resemblance to Shelley remains very strong, for all of his beings suffer from a quester’s temperament, are self-deceived, and seek a sensuous fulfillment, yet manage all too frequently to turn aside from any fate as being inadequate to the contradictory desires of their own crowded selves.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December, 1881:

The Brownings may be reckoned to the Romantics.

William Wordsworth, 1846 – musing on the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning:

“Well, I hope they understand one another – nobody else would.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language, on “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

However the poem is interpreted, its universal appeal seems to center upon its vision of a willfully ruined quester, whose own strength of imagination has become a deforming and breaking agent, and who calls into question the meaningfulness of all premeditated human action.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, January 1, 1948:

I re-read a little Browning & if that is the kind of poem [Randall Jarrell] wants to do I think he should, too. How do you feel about Browning and why don’t the critics ever mention him in connection with you?–although give me you, any time–

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 21, 1948:

Browning had all the right ideas about material–new ones at that. But what does he do? Invents a language, ties himself up in metrical knots–often ingenious; but which have nothing to do with what he’s saying. Then all his cheap simplifications! He should have been the great poet of the 19th century, but he constantly amazes and never seems to get anything really right. I suppose his best are “Caliban,” “The Housekeepers,” “Mr. Mudge,” “Bishop Bloughram,” “The Bishop Orders” and The Ring–this probably above all, if I could ever get through it.

Robert Browning on his 1863 poems:

Though lyric in expression, they are always Dramatic in principle… utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.

Michael Schmidt:

[Elizabeth Barrett Browning] deserves limelight, not as the object of his romantic attention but as a significant poet herself. In her time, she was prolific and very highly thought of; he lived rather in her shadow, whatever adjustments posterity has made.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

In metonymy, contiguity replaces resemblance, since the name or prime aspect of anything is sufficient to indicate it, provided it is near in space to what serves as substitute. Childe Roland in Browning’s remarkable monologue, is represented at the very end by the “slug-horn” or trumpet upon which he dauntlessly blows. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

Gerard Manley Hoplkins, letter, October 12, 1881:

Indeed I hold with the old-fashioned criticism that Robert Browning is not really a poet, that he has all the gifts but the one needful and the pearls without the string.

Matthew Arnold to his mother:

My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it. It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigor and abundance than Browning; yet, perhaps because I have more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.

Life-Long, Poor Browning
By Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet
Life-long, poor Browning never knew Virginia,
Or he’d not grieved in Florence for April sallies
Back to English gardens after Euclid’s linear:
Clipt yews. Pomander Walks, and pleached alleys;

Primroses, prim indeed, in quiet ordered hedges,
Waterways, soberly, sedately enchanneled,
No thin riotous blade even among the sedges,
All the wild country-side tamely impaneled . . .

Dead, now, dear Browning lives on in heaven,—
(Heaven’s Virginia when the year’s at its Spring)
He’s haunting the byways of wine-aired leaven
And throating the notes of the wildings on wing:

Here canopied reaches of dogwood and hazel,
Beech tree and redbud fine-laced in vines,
Fleet clapping rills by lush fern and basil,
Drain blue hills to lowlands scented with pines . . .

Think you he meets in this tender green sweetness
Shade that was Elizabeth . . . immortal completeness!

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Browning is the most considerable poet in English since the major Romantics, surpassing his great contemporary rival Tennyson and the principal twentieth-century poets, including even Yeats, Hardy, and Wallace Stevens. But Browning is a very difficult poet, notoriously badly served by criticism, and ill-served also by his own accounts of what he was doing as a poet. His public statements and letters, his conversational asides, and the implicit polemic of his one important essay (inevitably on Shelley) all work together to emphasize the dramatic and objective elements in his poetry. Thus, his essay on Shelley implicitly claims kinship for himself with Shakespeare, classified as the supreme objective poet, as against Shelley, who is judged (with reverence) the outstanding example of the subjective poet. In the advertisement to the original Dramatic Lyrics of 1842, Browning insisted that the poems were, “though for the most part Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” This insistence he maintained until the end.

Michael Schmidt:

His sentimentality, too, can be cloyingly Victorian. He selects the eccentric, the morally deformed, the man with a grudge, guilt, secret or crime to his credit … His vulgarity is a kind of journalistic prurience in love with opulent detail: he is wide-eyed. The Italy he evokes is not that of Dante or Michelangelo, as Santayana says. One learns more from the poems about his prejudices and tastes than about his ostensible subjects.

Robert Browning on his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1871:

“The simple truth is that she was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison.”

And here is Robert Browning’s first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, 1845:

January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, –whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me — for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration — perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of herafter! — but nothing comes of it

all — so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew … oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away … and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought — but in this addressing myself to you, your

own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogher. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart — and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?” — then he went to announce me, — then he returned … you were too unwell — and now it is years ago — and I feel as at some untorward passage in my travels — as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel

on crypt, … only a screen to push and I might have entered — but there was some slight … so it now seems … slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!

Well, these Poems were to be — and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.
Yours ever faithfully
Robert Browning

The clasped hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 1853. Sculptor Harriet Hosmer did plaster casts of both poets’ hands.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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11 Responses to “Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true.” – Robert Browning

  1. mutecypher says:

    //It pleased me.//

    “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

    Offered at about the same time of life.

    • sheila says:

      Oh Good Lord, no! I just loved expressive adjectives and was discovering poetic language and Meeting at Night satisfied on all of those levels.

      • mutecypher says:

        Questions about Personhood at 16…

        From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

        “Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

        I think, to become a person and be at liberty, at some point you have to join the Devil’s party.

        But that’s what the Devil would say.

        Meeting at Night, hmm.

        I’ll stop.

        • sheila says:

          Well, I was very innocent and very Catholic so none of this Devil Talk would have gone very far with me.

          I just loved the adjectives because language erects worlds in my head. Which is what happened when I read Prufrock too. I didn’t understand a damn word. But boy, those words made me see things.

          I had always loved reading, but discovering poetry was a whole new ballgame.

          • mutecypher says:

            I meant no disrespect to your discovery.

            “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” is a quote that a friend and I often exchange.

          • mutecypher says:

            I don’t recall discovering poetry specifically. What triggered my inappropriate projection was the memory of discovering a love of reading when I was in the second grade. I had checked out a book called “Lester and The Sea Monster” and just fell in love with it. When it was bed time, I was told to put the book away. I brought it with me to my bedroom. And then a light when on for me when I realized that I could turn on the light to the aquarium in my room and continue reading after bed time.

            So reading and discovery and forbidden pleasure are associated for me. But not tropic fish.

            Sorry to project that onto you.

          • sheila says:

            One can be passionate and still totally innocent. People misunderstood that about me all the time back then.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    His first letter to her was written exactly 100 years before my birth. It felt odd reading that. Odd, but also good.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Not on topic.

    I wrote to you in 2019 exactly what I thought today! That first letter to her was sent a hundred years before my birth. To the day. Still true.

    Am glad to find things you put here that I’ve not only read, but written to you about.

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